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ultima_vii_black_gate_box

Ultima VII is without doubt one of the greatest CRPG’s and perhaps one of the best RPG games ever made. It is also without doubt one of the hardest games to get running correctly. In this article we are going to take a look at building a PC specifically for the purpose of playing one game, Ultima VII and Ultima VII part II, Serpent Isle

Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this article I do want to point out there are various patches and fixes to allow Ultima VII to play on a Windows 9X computer, there are also other methods that allow one to play the game on a machine that normally would not play U7 optimally such as utilities or jumper tricks to slow down faster PC’s or simply using a boot disk to configure things correctly. That is not the reason or focus of this article. In this article we are building a PC specifically for the sole purpose to play U7 as optimized as we can using “mostly” period hardware in a DOS environment without the aid of patches or boot disks.

The first question one might ask is “Why would I want to play Ultima VII”? The answer to this question I actually answered in the first paragraph. U7 is widely considered one of the greatest RPG games of all time so if you are a RPG lover you owe it to yourself to play this game. The second question one would likely ask is “Why is it so hard to get this game running correctly, or for that matter running at all”? That is the question we will be looking at below as well as how to put together a PC that addresses these issues.

There are basically two major reasons and one minor reason this game was and still is so hard to get running. I’ve read stories of people buying this game back on release and having to return it due to not being able how to figure out how to make it run. We’ll start with the more minor issue first and then work our way up to the major roadblock to getting this game to run properly.

1 ) Hard drives usage – Ultima VII accesses the hard dive A LOT. This can result in continuous stuttering or pauses as the screen scrolls. This though is the most minor of issues when hoping to play U7 on real hardware. The simplest advise I have for this is find the fastest hard drive and hard drive controller you can find for your build and use that. I went with a VLB controller paired with a none era correct compact flash card which I think works very well as a solution.

2) CPU speed sensitivity –  Ultima VII is one of those games that require a vary specific CPU speed or things will either play to slowly or to fast. You can play the game on a 40mhz 386 or early 486 but the game just bogs down. On a 66mhz 486DX2 or above the game just plays way to fast.  a 33mhz 486 is largely considered the “official” recommended CPU speed but I would say the U7 Goldilocks range is between a 33mhz 486 and a 50mhz 486DX2. On a 50mhz DX the game just runs a little to fast and on a 66mhz DX2 it becomes almost unplayable especially if your chasing something on screen such as a monster. Users of 66mhz DX2’s can play with jumpers on the motherboard and set your FSB to 20mhz to simulate a 40mhz DX2 (which never existed as an actual 486 CPU) which plays the game pretty optimally. Those trying to slow down their machine by using programs to disable internal cache may find a nasty surprise as the game re-initializes cache if it is disabled.

3) Memory management – The greatest hurdle in getting U7 to work at all is the custom memory manager known as the Voodoo Memory Manager that the game REQUIRES to work. This manager is incompatible with just about all expanded memory managers such as EMM386. On top of this the game requires a fairly large amount of conventional memory, as much as 585kb. This is the core of the problem. In normal use a user would use a program such as EMM386 or QEMM to move essential drivers into upper memory thus freeing up conventional memory for games. The requirement to use the custom Voodoo manager thus prevents this and in turn you can’t free up enough conventional memory for the game since it’s eaten up by drivers for various required things such as CD-ROM drivers, mouse drivers, SMARTDRV, ect… This requires users to either use a boot disk with a minimal setup  or hand pick the smallest compatible drivers that can be found and trim the system down to the required basics.

Here is a look at my “Ultimate Ultima VII PC” and how I set things up to play U7 without the need for a boot disk or any slowdown utilities.

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I came across this machine at a local swap meet and thought the compact case would be perfect for this U7 build I had in my head.

The motherboard I’m using is a version of the FIC 486-GVT U2, and Is the same board I have used previously in my 50mhz DX machine. I’m using 24MB of RAM (U7 only requires 4MB) as well as 256k of L2 cache.

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Before I get into the software side of things and show you how I’ve set up DOS to have enough conventional memory while retaining the needed drivers and using the custom Voodoo Memory Management system U7 requires lets go over the hardware.

CPU – Initially I went with the generally recommended 33mhz 486DX but after some further research I concluded the optimal CPU for my tastes is the AMD 486DX-40 running on a 40mhz front side bus. I decided on this CPU over the 33mhz because I felt that later in the game when there are multiple enemies and things happening on screen the extra CPU power could really come in handy in preventing things from bogging down to much.

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Video – For video I went with my old VLB Diamond Speedster Pro based on the Cirrus Logic GD5428 chip. I have used this card in the past and overall it is a fast and compatible video card for DOS.

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The combination of the 40mhz DX CPU and fast video may result in the game running marginally fast in areas such as the city but nothing that ruins the game. To be honest if it is running slightly faster then it should in these areas I’m not noticing it to any great degree.

Also please note there seems to be some sort of incompatibility with cards using the ET4000 chipset and Ultima VII. The issue seems to be a shimmering effect or what I see as sort of “VCR tracking lines” appearing at the top of the screen. I have confirmed this is an issue effecting several ET4000 cards by testing multiple cards from different manufacturers and also talking to others that share the same issue.

Here is a video showing the effect when U7 is played with an ISA ET4000 based card.

Audio – Ultima 7 offers the option to use the MT-32 for music as well as FM. Obviously the Roland MT-32 midi module offers superior quality in music and so that is the direction I took my machine. I didn’t want to spend extra money on a Roland midi interface card but thankfully U7 does not require intelligent mode to play its midi via the joystick port on a standard sound card. Knowing this I went a slightly unexpected route and went with a sound blaster clone card, the Audio Excel PNP16.

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I decided to go with a clone card because the Sound Blaster Pro cards do not support midi via the joystick port and Sound Blaster 16 cards are prone to the “hanging midi bug”. A careful observer may notice the complete lack of a real OPL FM chip on this card. For me this wasn’t an issues as I do not plan to use FM and only need this card for the MIDI interface capabilities and for digital sound effects. If you are planning on using the FM track for music as opposed to a Roland MT-32 I would recommend a Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 or Sound Blaster 16 with a real OPL FM chip.

Hard Drive – As I mentioned earlier U7 thrashes most hard drives so I strongly recommend getting the fastest hard drive and controller you can. I decided to go for a VLB HDD controller as well as a era incorrect 512mb compact flash card to use as a hard drive.

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The hard drive controller I’m using the the VLB  DTC 2278 enhanced IDE controller card. There are certainly faster controllers out there but not wanting to spend money on expensive and hard to find controllers with on board cache RAM I felt this card was quite capable.

For the hard drive itself I went with a Sandisk 512mb compact flash card on a IDE to CF adapter. I also housed this card in a removable HDD caddy so If I ever wanted to use the machine for something other then Ultima VII and did not want to mess around with my configuration I could simply and easily swap hard drives.

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So now that we’ve taken a look at the hardware lets take a look on how to setup DOS to get U7 running.

getting enough conventional memory to run Ultima VII and Serpent isle (which requires even more memory then part VII) without being able to utilize upper memory was a bit of a chore. Firstly you only want to load drivers that are needed for the game so this would include CD-ROM drivers, mouse drivers and sound card drivers if required depending on the card your using. SMARTDRV is also recommended to help with speeding up hard drive access. This means you don’t want to be loading any drivers that are not necessary to the games so nothing for example like drivers for a ZIP drive need to be loaded.

Next you need to search for the smallest sized drivers you can and hope they are compatible with whatever motherboard or drives your using. Some of these nonstandard drivers may have compatibility problems with other games but for the Ultima VII PC we only care if they work with U7. here is a look at my memory usage on my U7 PC and the drivers I’m using.

u7pc11

This setup gives me more then enough conventional and XMS memory for Ultima VII and Serpent Isle. Here are some of the recommended drivers I used.

Mouse – CTMOUSE, the most compatible and smallest DOS mouse drivers out there, I actually use these drivers as standard for my DOS PC’s. http://cutemouse.sourceforge.net/

CD-ROM – I used VIDE-CDD drivers for my CD-ROM drive and SHSUCDX as a substitute for MSCDEX. these both take up significantly less space then my usual GSCDROM and MSCDEX combo which combined can eat a whopping 57k of memory compared to 11k of the  VIDE-CDD and SHSUCDX combo. This combo may very well have inferior overall compatibility but remember, for this project we are only concerned with U7. One side effect of using VIDE-CDD is on boot up I get a brief speaker beep and illegal operation error yet the CD drive seems to detect and operate flawlessly. VIDE-CDD & SHSUCDX – https://www.hiren.info/downloads/dos-files

Everything else I’m running is standard with AEMIX being for my sound card.

If your having trouble finding drivers that work and that are small enough you can possibly get away with disabling SMARTDRV if your using a more modern HDD or a compact flash drive. SMARTDRV is primarily most useful in boosting performance of older more period correct hard drives.

Finally a look at my Autoexec.bat and Config.sys files.

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Ignore the GSCDROM line I have REMed. I was initially using them for my CD-ROM drive but switched over to the VIDE-CDD drivers in order to get Serpent Isle to run.

In conclusion I hope this information helps anyone out there looking to play Ultima VII on real hardware and helps alleviate some of the frustration associated with putting together such a build.

references

Nerdly Pleasures – Ultima VII on Real Hardware

Vogons post – http://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=32619

Imagine being able to play games in high quality at a smooth 30 frames per second and in full screen. It’s a silly thing to ask gamers or those that stream their favorite movies off the internet these days but in the 1980’s and early 90’s it was a wonder to behold being done on a lowly 386 or even a 486. Decoding video was a hefty task for those CPU’s of yesteryear and many just were not powerful enough for the task. Video cards eventually helped with the task of decoding video as they did with 3d rendering but this was still years away. Compromises then were forced to be made as we entered the brave new world of Full motion video or FMV as it is often referred to. To allow the use of FMV on the less capable CPU’s of the time videos screens were often shot in fairly low and grainy quality. Many times FMV was also reduced to a small section of the screen to ease the burden on the CPU in much the same way one is able to reduce the visual play area in a game such as DOOM to increase frame rate. Enter the Reelmagic Mpeg decoder card. A card that was ment to install next to your primary video card and whose sole purpose was to decode Mpeg1 video and send it to your monitor. Finally PC users were able watch actual full screen FMV videos on their PC at smooth rates and at acceptable quality.

First were going to look at an older Reelmagic card which is also the card I used in all my testing.

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(remember all images can be enlarged by clicking on them twice)

This is the Reelmagic CD lite from 1993 by Sigma Designs. It is a fairly long 16 bit ISA card meant to be installed alongside a primary video card. The CD lite card differs from the full version of the Reelmagic CD card by its lack of an IDE connector meant to connect to a CD drive as well as the lack of a pin header to attach an OPL3 FM card which basically turns the card into a sound blaster compatible. Since I already had a CD drive controller as well as a Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 installed I felt the Lite version was a better buy. The full Reelmagic cards can also go for quite a lot of money so weigh your needs.

The card has both a VGA output and a 1/4″ inch audio jack output port.

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The card works by connecting internally with your primary video card via a vesa feature connector located on the upper right corner of the card nearer the output jacks. Generally the cable ends in both a pin style and edge style connection so you can connect to video cards that use either style. Here is my Tseng Labs ET4000 card with its vesa feature connector highlighted which is where you would connect your cable from the Reelmagic card to.

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older cards sometimes had this connector in a edge card form.

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The cables themselves aren’t to hard to find and offer a superior image quality to using an external connection solution. The downside to this method is some video cards may lack a vesa feature connector making the Reelmagic card unusable with these video cards.

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Reelmagic card connected to ET4000 video card via vesa feature connector

 Later Sigma Designs changed the name to their Mpeg decoder cards to Realmagic. These cards also come in a PCI variety and are much shorter in length, significantly more common and less expensive.

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Unfortunately these later cards switched to using an external proprietary dongle to connect to the primary video card and works in the same way as early 3DFX voodoo cards in connecting externally. Unfortunately the dongles can be hard to find and the image takes a slight quality hit compared to the internal method. The plus side is these cards can be used with virtually any primary video card.

Besides video the Reelmagic card also streams audio directly from the CD through the 1/4″ audio jack so be sure to connect this to your sound cards line in and then use the mixer to output all sound to your speakers since your sound card is still going to be doing most of the music and sound effects while your RM card will be streaming sound from the FMVs from the CD.

There weren’t very many games released that were able to take advantage of the Reelmagic cards and unfortunately these days they tend to be hard to find. Also finding a reliable list of confirmed games also seems to be a challenge. Below I’ve compiled a list of games believed to have Reelmagic versions produced though I can only confirm the games with a “*” placed after the title. If I’ve placed a “#” after a title that means I strongly believe this game was never produced as a Reelmagic version.

 Matinee
MPC Wizard
The Nature of Hunting
Learning Fly Fishing
Mozart Visits Yosemite
Mozart Visits Grand Canyon
Mozart Visits Yellowstone
Mozart Visits Hawaii
Animal Kingdom
WorldView
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia
The Sporting News
20th Century Video Almanac
Police Quest 4 #
Man Enough
Return to Zork *
Dragon’s Lair *
Video Cube-Space
SoundTrack
Space Ace *
The Lord of the Rings
The Phychotron *
Conspiracy with Donald Sutherland (AKA KGB)
The Horde *
Escape from Cyber City
Kings Quest VI #
Gabriel Knight #
Under a Killing Moon #
Brain Dead at 13
Dragons Lair II

In my experience these games usually only came in jewel case form and clearly have “Reelmagic” printed on both the cover and the CD’s themselves.

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Although the Reelmagic versions of games can be hard to find and may require sifting through tens or hundreds of jewel case versions on EBay once found the Reelmagic versions tend to sell for about the same price as the regular versions likely due to the general ignorance that these are even “special” versions. Reelmagic versions of games also make calls to the Reelmagic card requiring it to be present, as far as I can tell Reelmagic versions have also not been emulated in any way such as via DOSbox. There is also some reported incompatibilities with getting the later PCI versions of the Realmagic cards working with older RM games such as Return to Zork.

Supposedly the Reelmagic cards can also play VCD movies which were basically movies on CD and I’ve even read within the driver readme file that with the right CD drive you can watch CD-I format movies though I can’t confirm this at present.

Take note that the card also needs a driver install to function properly. I initially had a lot of trouble getting my card working due to resource conflicts with my sound card but driver version 2.01 offers a test which checks your system for conflicts and a menu to switch IRQ and DMA if needed.

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Some of the games I tried also were a little odd to get running. Return to Zork for instance installed and was executed like most any game from the era. You put the CD in and run the install off the CD. After installation you simply run the EXE from the directory you installed to, simple. The Reelmagic version of Dragons Lair on the other hand does not allow you to run the game off the EXE on the CD without manually initializing the RM card. Actually when you install the RM drivers it also installs a file named “dragon” in the directory you installed the RM drivers in. With the CD in your drive the game will start if you run the “dragon” file from the RM directory. Space Ace works the same way except there is no special run file created for it when you install the RM drivers so you need to run “FMPDRV” in your RM directory to initialize the drivers before Space Ace will play by running the EXE on the CD.

Here are a few comparison gameplay shots.

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Return to Zork

The Reelmagic version of Return to Zork features a smooth and better looking full screen intro when compared to the retail CD version. It also features more animated segments and some improved backgrounds effects as well as some changed conversations and puzzle’s.

My Dragons Lair Reelmagic version was captured on a 33mhz 486DLC with an ET4000 ISA video card. Windows version from the Dragons Lair Deluxe pack on a 550mhz K6-III+ and a AGP Voodoo Banshee.

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In the end would I recommend a retro PC enthusiast to pick up a Reelmagic or later Realmagic card? I’d have to say no. The later cheaper Realmagic cards are a bit questionable with dongles being hard to find and reports of game incompatibilities while the earlier cards are just hard to come across and expensive when you finally do. If you did come across one cheap then by all means but I cant recommend searching one out especially with the number of games supported being so low and hard to find.

Awhile back LGR reviews, a very popular YouTube channel that covers retro computing posted a video about building a 486 machine. It was certainly a competent machine, faux woodgrain aside but one comment in the video stuck out to me. At one point it is mentioned somewhat offhand that the AMD 486 CPU’s were known to be slightly faster then their Intel counterparts. I never had heard this before and became quite curious to the matter. After some Google searching I still could not find any reference to this. Finally I created a thread over at the VOGONS forum on the matter and it was the general consensus that the AMD chips were basically clones and performance was virtually identical. It was even brought up by a few posters that the AMD chips seemed to have a few software incompatibilities for unknown reasons with OS/2 and Netware cited as examples.

With this information in hand I decided to do my own testing and thus we have this article and the CPU face off. My goal with these tests was to perform a number of benchmarks on both CPU’s to see if there is any actual performance difference and second to attempt to install OS/2 Warp using various CPU’s to check compatibility. So lets take a look at the CPU’s we will be testing.

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The two main CPU’s will be testing are the Intel and AMD 486 DX2-66 chips. These are classic 486 CPU’s both running at the exact same speed. Supposedly the AMD chip is a virtual clone of the Intel model and both of these chips have 8kb of on board L1 write-through cache though both companies also produced enhanced write-back cache versions. To keep things interesting I also decided to throw in a Cyrix DX2-66 which was also a popular CPU manufacturer at the time. Supposedly the Cyrix chip is an independent design from the AMD or Intel parts but specs wise is identical with a 66mhz running speed and 8kb of L1 write-through cache.

GIGA-BYTE-TECHNOLOGY-CO-LTD-486-GA-486VF-1The motherboard I’ll be using for these tests is the Ga-486VF rev 8B socket 3 board using a SIS chipset with 20mb of FPM RAM and 256kb of L2 cache. I’m using a CL-GD5426 based VLB video card for video output and a generic ISA I/0 controller. Since a sound card would be unused for these tests I left it off the board.

Before the benchmarking tests I wanted to give the results of the compatibility tests using OS/2 warp version 4. There are many versions of OS/2 and warp ver. 4 was all I had on hand so keep in mind earlier versions may show incompatibilities that ver. 4 does not. After my testing I found that OS/2 warp ver. 4 loaded up and ran fine on both the Intel and AMD DX2-66 chip. Warp ver. 4 however did fail to load running the Cyrix DX2-66 and on loading the OS consistently threw an error and halted the loading process.

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Lastly we have the benchmark results running the standard gambit of DOS benchmarks.

dx2 mashup

So according to the results of several benchmarks as seen above the AMD and Intel chips are virtually identical performance wise. The Intel chip in most cases barely pulls ahead of the AMD chip by a hair but usually this is a less then 1 FPS difference and within the margin of error. The Cyrix chip on the other hand lagged behind a little on three out of five benchmark tests lagging by 10 FPS in quake and almost 5 FPS in DOOM. The Cyrix DX2 barely pulled ahead in PCP bench and for whatever reason was given a higher score in Speedsys test.

So what’s the final verdict? From everything the benchmarks have shown me plus personal experience and online research the Intel and AMD DX2-66mhz chips are virtually identical performance wise. The Intel does seem to be the slightest bit faster but never even exceeded more then 1 FPS or point difference in any test. I don’t think this difference is even perceivable by a human user. The Cyrix chip though was the clear loser falling behind the Intel/AMD duo and having incompatibility issues with OS/2. In most usage situations I think the Cyrix 486 would perform just fine and the average user would see little difference but given the choice an Intel or AMD DX2 is certainly the way to go. Personally between the Intel and the AMD I would choose the Intel but they appear to be identical performance wise and very close in overall software compatibility. As I stated earlier the AMD chip may have compatibility issues with older versions of OS/2 and Netware, another piece of software the AMD chip is said to have issues with but not tested by myself.

 

 

The G400 was Matrox’s “Gamer card”. For years the company was known for producing graphics cards like the Matrox Mystique and G200 which offered superior 2D image quality but generally fell behind the competition when it came to producing high FPS or reliable and compatible drivers. The G400 released in 1999 was Matrox’s answer to this and offered 16 and 32 bit color modes in the excellent image quality Matrox was known for as well as touting an AGP x4 interface. The high end of the G400 family was the G400 MAX with 32MB of 200mhz SGRAM and a core clock speed of 150mhz giving competition like the TNT2 and Voodoo 3 a run for their money.

One feature the G400 featured that the competition did not was hardware support for EMBM or Environmental Mapped Bump Mapping. This is a method of detailing textures which a few games at the time supported. Some of these games like “Expendable” also known as “Millennium Soldier: Expendable” could only be run with EMBM mode on by a Matrox card of the G400 family as well as a few other Matrox cards. In this article I want to take a look at the fastest of the G400 family, the G400 MAX as well as the game Expendable and just show what the EMBM did as well as discus at the end a recent patch that allows you to experience this effect on non Matrox cards.

First lets take a look at the card in question.

g400max

Readers may recognize this image as I once had my G400 MAX installed in my dual Tualatin machine. The MAX is the fastest of the G400 cards which includes later versions such as the G450 and thus was the preferred card to play games such as Expendables with EMBM enabled. The G400 MAX is usually fairly easy to spot among other G400 cards on places like EBay due to the fact that unlike the other cards it came with a cooling fan stock. The G400 MAX only comes in AGP form so make sure your motherboard that your using has an AGP slot.

As I said before the hardware EMBM feature of this card was supposed to be a big selling point as other cards on the market were not able to perform this ability. Nvidia didn’t have EMBM features until the Geforce 3 several years later. Unfortunately the list of games that supported this feature is short and usually the effect isn’t used to a large extent and many times limited to making water look more realistic. I’ve read gamers have really struggled to see any difference when EMBM is activated in a number of games.

Here is an old list from Matrox of games that were slated to support EMBM, though if all of these titles did implement it is questionable.

Ace of Angels™
Aquarius™
Battlezone II: Combat Commander™
Battle Isle: The Andosia war
BITM
Carmageddon®: TDR 2000™
Colin McRae Rally 2
Descent 3™
Descent 3™: Mercenary
Destroyer Command™
Drakan™
Dungeon Keeper™ 2
Echelon®
Echelon®: Wind Warriors
Expendable™
F1 World Grand Prix
Far Gate
Fur Fighters
Hard Truck II™
Hired Team™ Gold
Hired Team™: Trial
Incoming Forces
Parkan: Iron Strategy™
Ka-52 Team Alligator™
Kyodai
Off Road: Redneck Racing
Offshore2000: Pro Surf Tour
Planet Heat
PowerRender™ engine V 3.0*
Private Wars™
Rollcage® Stage II
Silent Hunter II
Silent Space (cancelled)
Silex engine
Slave Zero™
Speed Busters™
Spirit of Speed 1937
Sub Command
Jugular® Street Luge Racing
Totaled™
Warm Up
Wild Metal Country™*

Command & Conquer Renegade also used it for water effects but it was not restricted to using Matrox cards and that’s the catch with EMBM. It’s not that later cards could not perform the feature but many times the game executable would search for a Matrox card when executed and if one was not found the game would not run or would not run with EMBM enabled even if you had a EMBM capable card installed like the Geforce 3. This is what made having something like the G400 MAX in a collection interesting since it was the only means to fully experience some of these titles. Now lets talk about the game in question. Expendables was released by RAGE in 1999 and was an arcade port. From what I understand it was only released in “big box” form in Europe and not North America. I had to import my version from the UK. Expendable is an example of a game that put EMBM to decent use and it’s very noticeable in the water effects as well as some other game textures when activated. For a long time it was also a game that could only run with EMBM effects enabled if run on a Matrox card.20160822_231222

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The game is a Win 98 game but will run on later operating systems. There is also a Dreamcast port of the game titled “Millennium Soldier: Expendable” but from what I can tell it is graphically inferior to the PC port with no EMBM effects, lower resolutions and missing a few effects such as the video billboard seen in stage 1.

The game itself comes with a minimal storyline about aliens or some such thing but really the story isn’t important as the game is just a fun overhead run and gun shooter. The game is done all in 3D polygons but has actually aged pretty well and looks good in my opinion. It’s one of those mindless games where you just shut your mind off and shoot stuff up. On the downside the controls are horrible. Maybe this control scheme works fine on the Dreamcast controller but on a PC it’s frustrating and creates a lot of unneeded difficulty. The best I can describe it is sort of like Resident Evil tank like controls where up and down move you forward and back but left and right rotate your character. The game gives you plenty of options form keyboard and mouse to gamepad but I cant seem to get the full hang of the controls leading to many instances of inadvertently walking into laser fences or onto land mines. Despite the often times infuriating controls the game is still a lot of fun to play and has many levels and interesting bosses.

EMBM though is not activated by default but requires a patch. before that though let me go over the system I used to play this game.

The system I put together for this game almost deserves an article of its own. The motherboard I went with is a very late socket A board, the Asrock K7VT4A PRO. This board sports all the features of a late socket A board such as ATA 133, SATA, AGP X8, DDR memory support and support for Barton core socket A CPU’s.

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For a CPU I went with the Barton core AMD Athlon XP 2500+ running at 1.833mhz and sporting 512kb of L2 cache on the CPU. When looking at the Pentium II requirements for Expendable this is quite an overkill but I wanted to make sure I maxed the Matrox GPU out and left some power to experiment later with non Matrox cards. I’m also running Windows 98SE, 512mb of DDR 400 RAM and a Maxtor ATA 133 hard drive with DMA activated. I’m also running a Diamond Monster MX300 sound card that uses the Vortex2 chip since Expendable takes advantage of this sound chip and its 3D positional audio.

Once you have your setup ready and installed Expendable from the CD you need to do a few things to get the game running with EMBM enabled. first off make sure your using an older version of the Matrox video drivers else you may encounter issues with selecting resolutions. I used drivers ver. 5.52.015

Once those are installed I also suggest getting PowerStrip version 2.78. PowerStrip is a graphics utility that lets you make all kind of tweaks. Go into advanced settings and disable V-sync. disabling this will boost your framerate but increase the possibility of screen tearing though in my many playthroughs of Expendable with V-sync disabled I noticed no tearing.

Next you’ll need to download the EMBM patch from here. From there you simply unzip the patch into the main Expendable directory and your pretty much set. You will get two executables one labeled Expendable and the other “Go”. Run the Expendable.exe first to setup your game. Keep in mind that due to the limit of 32MB of RAM on the G400 MAX you are limited to playing in 1024 x 768 resolution in 32 bit color mode. Anything higher and your game will crash. This is also where you setup your audio so if your using a Vortex2 chip be sure to select that. After this exit out and run the Go.exe and your game should start. keep in mind the patch is oddly picky. I kept getting crashes and memory errors until I updated my motherboards chipset.

So what does all this work get us? the turning off of V-sync helps offset the FPS hit we take from enabling EMBM while enabling EMBM improves textures on some vehicles as well as adds effects such as tread marks in the ground and most notably changes the look of water effects. They go from being a muddy almost mist look to wavy blue.

NO EMBM ENABLED
exp

 

EMBM ENABLED
expembm

 

There’s also a few other very minor changes such as the video billboard will now also display the Matrox logo.

So as I mentioned earlier many of these games such as Expendable could only be played on Matrox cards that supported EMBM due to the fact that the game checked for the presence of a Matrox card in the system. Recently a member over at the Vogons forum put together a modified patch that will trick the game into thinking a Matrox card was installed thus letting one use later cards like the Geforce 3 and 4 that have EMBM capabilities but also faster GPU’s and vastly more RAM.

this patch can be found here.

I’ve tested this patch on this same system with a Geforce 4 ti4200 and the game played perfectly. below are some benchmarking results I took using the games built in timedemo. the results compare a Matrox G400 MAX at 1024 x 768 with EMBM enabled and my Geforce 4 ti4200 at 1920 x 1440 with EMBM enabled.

Keep in mind that many of the other early EMBM capable games may also require a Matrox card and have not been patched to use other brand cards so it still may be worth keeping a G400 MAX handy depending on what you want to play.

The time demo for Expendable can be enabled by making a shortcut to the “go.exe” file and entering properties and editing the shortcut by adding -timedemo

G400 MAX, EMBM ENABLED, NO V-SYNC

Running at  – 1024 x 768 x 32
Total Time  – 234 Seconds
Gameframes  – 11226
Lowest FPS  – 17 fps
Highest FPS – 85 fps
Average FPS – 47.957265 fps

GEFORCE 4 TI4200, EMBM ENABLED, NO V-SYNC

Running at  – 1920 x 1440 x 32
Total Time  – 147 Seconds
Gameframes  – 11226
Lowest FPS  – 21 fps
Highest FPS – 131 fps
Average FPS – 76.258503 fps

dlc3

Previously on this blog we have discussed both what I think is an “ultimate” or at least near “ultimate” 386 PC in the Anatomy of a 386 article and we also talked about pushing certain sockets beyond their intended scope such as with the 486 and Socket 3 motherboards and pushing their limits  and I wanted to do something similar with the 386. In this article were going to take a look at the Cyrix 486DLC chip, a drop in replacement chip meant to upgrade a 386 class motherboard with a 486 class CPU. Were going to look at one of the more common DLC chips, the Cyrix DLC-40, run some benchmarks and put it up against the king of the 386 chips the AMD 386-40.

First lets take a look at the test PC and then the CPU’s will be testing.

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This is the 386 PC will be testing the CPU’s on.

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I could not identify the motherboard but it’s based off the Opti 495XLC chipset and is loaded with 128kb of L2 cache and 8MB of FPM RAM. For video I am using a Tseng Labs ET4000 ISA video card and I have a Sound Blaster 2.0 installed as well although it will be unused for the benchmark tests. My memory settings are fairly standard and I didn’t mess with them much from the defaults. AT bus divider set at 5, memory timings set at 2-1-1-1 and wait states set to 1.

So lets take a look at the two CPU’s will be testing today.

First up is the king of the 386 chips, the famous and beloved AMD 386DX-40.

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The 386DX-40 was a very reliable 32 bit 386 chip made by AMD and is very well regarded for its speed and reliability. This is the fastest true 386 made and is overall very capable. It though, like all true 386 chips has no L1 cache memory on board.

The second CPU we will be putting it up against is the Cyrix 486DLC-40.

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The DLC-40 created by Cyrix was intended to be a drop in upgrade CPU for 32 bit 386 class motherboards which in essence gave 386 PC users a 486 CPU upgrade. It essentially is a supped up 386 with 486 code inserted and 1kb of L1 cache added on the chip. There was also a more common 33mhz version like this guy.

dlc33m

as well as later DLC chips made by Texas Instruments and IBM which added even more L1 cache. The fastest of these chips is an IBM triple clocked DLC rated at 100mhz that supposedly is about equal to an Intel 486DX-66. Due to licensing agreements though I believe IBM was only able to sell these chips imbedded as part of a motherboard or upgrade kit.

There are also SLC variants which are 16/32 bit hybrids designed to be more compatible with older motherboards where as DLC variants are true 32 bit.

The on board L1 cache memory of the DLC is a huge advantage over the AMD 386-40 so on all the benchmarks I tested the DLC chip twice, once with the cache enabled and one again with it disable so we can see how much of a difference this makes.

The unidentified 386 class motherboard I’m using is a later model and supports the DLC chips in BIOS. Here is a shot of the specs as I boot up.

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Notice the BIOS recognizes the DLC chip as under “main processor” it is listed as a Cx486DLC. Many older 386 motherboards  may not recognize the DLC chip properly and simply report it as a 80486SX. You may also need to run a setup utility with these older boards to fully utilize the DLC chip.

My BIOS also has the option to enable/disable the internal L1 cache on the CPU though for reasons I cant figure out this option does not work and the l1 cache is enabled automatically regardless of how it is set here.

dlc1

 

Failing this you can always disable/enable the internal L1 cache via software. I used the Cyrix cx486 utility which allows you to easily enable/disable the L1 cache by the C button. Just be sure to hit W to write your choice to the registers before exiting the program.

dlc2

So without further adieu we have the benchmarks. The programs I used were all pretty standard, 3D Bench, PCP Bench and DOOM. Below is a bar chart to better illustrate the performance of the two chips and I also added a 33mhz Intel 486 results from a similarly spec’ed 486 machine using the same amount of L2 cache and the same video card to compare.

dlcgraph

The results are basically what we would expect with the DLC handily defeating the AMD 386-40. DOOM seems to benefit the most from the L1 cache as the difference between the 386-40 and DLC with cache disabled is only .6 FPS but with cache enabled its a 2.5 FPS difference.

you’ll also notice the DLC does pretty well compared to the Intel 486DX-33 even tying it in PCP Bench. After some optimization I managed even more performance gain.

After setting wait states to 0 and the AT bus divider to 3 I was able to get the following results out of the cache enabled DLC-40

3D Bench    – 22.1

PCP Bench –  5.5

DOOM        –  10

You can see with these results the DLC surpasses the DX-33 in all but DOOM.

graphdlc2

The folks over at Red Hill Computing whom I often refer to in my research seem to really love this chip and claim it to be “vastly superior” to a 486DX-33 system though I would have to somewhat disagree. In a very optimized system the DLC can match or beat the DX-33 but I wouldn’t say it’s as fast clock for clock and I wouldn’t call a few frames per second advantage “vastly superior”. At the time though they would of been correct in that verbiage from a fiscal point of view as the DLC was vastly cheaper then a Intel 486DX-33 allowing the buyer to purchase more RAM.

I’m very curious how much the added cache of the later DLC chips such as the ones from TI and IBM affected performance and that may be the bases of an eventual revision to this article. The DLC does do what it claims to do and does increase performance of a 386 to 486 levels as well as being vastly cheaper then an Intel 486 but keep in mind it was still restricted by the 386 architecture and limited to the amount of RAM it could use. Possibly not a bad option for the budget user that already owned a 386 machine but holding out for the pricy 486DX-66 would of been a smarter move for the long run in my opinion.

When I frequent Goodwill’s and other thrift type second hand shops I always make a point of going through the huge stacks of old VCR and DVD players that are usually present. I do this because I’m usually on the lookout for Laserdisc or Beta players as well as the odd video game console that looks like a VCR or DVD player such as certain models of the CD-i or the Laseractive player. In these searches I often come across “combo players” or machines that can play both VHS tapes and DVD discs. These combo machines make sense as when people were transitioning over to DVD they still had large VHS collections they may of wanted to still hold onto for some time, especially since in the early days of DVD many films had not made the jump to the digital disc.

On one of my thrifting outings not to long ago I can across one of these combo machines and I had almost past it up when I had to take a second glance to confirm what I saw.

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Yes, that’s right. A Blu-ray/VHS combo deck. I was immediately intrigued. After all Blu-ray came out long after the general death of VHS. The second label on the player also grabbed my attention and made me finally give in and pay the $20 some dollars on the price tag.

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That’s right, VHS tapes upconverted to 1080p over HDMI, I had no idea. See back in the 1980’s and 90’s the in heydays of VHS the best video output you could hope for for your VHS tapes was s-video and this was usually only available on rather high end players. Even in Europe where RGB was an accepted standard VCR players only outputted composite and s-video over SCART.

There were tape decks with component but these were very rare and reserved only for editing and broadcast commercial uses and I suspect never sold on a commercial market. I only ever saw one of these players and it was a forum sale over at the Neo Geo forums. Later VHS/DVD combo players sported component outputs for video but these only worked when playing a DVD disc so even with these players you were still limited to s-video at best.

That’s a major reason this player really interested me. The player in question is the Panasonic DMP-BD70V which seems to of been released some time in 2009.

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On the back we have both HDMI and component for video output with only the HDMI being capable of displaying 1080p.

There are a few drawbacks. First off is the machines inability to record via either optical disc or VHS cassette. second is the DMP-BD70V does not support S-VHS in its native resolution but WILL still play and upconvert them. You also really want a remote control if you pick one of these machines up as the buttons on the face of the player are pretty sparse and there is no way to rewind, fast forward or move a cursor in a DVD/Blu-ray menu without one. This player also had some initial freezing issues with Blu-rays but a firmware updated solved many of these problems.

So how does it look? Pretty nice in my opinion. it obviously isn’t going to make 20+ year old VHS tapes you bought in a cardboard box for 50 cents a piece look like a brand new HD Blu-ray release but it does produce a very nice image. I would even say if you have a nice TV and a well maintained VHS tape you can achieve almost DVD like quality.

I did take a few direct captures for comparison.  The VHS player I ran the Panasonic up against is the Toshiba model W-804. This is a later model S-VHS player that supports s-video out as well as being a six head player as opposed to the more common four head.

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Toshiba W-804 frontbrc5Toshiba W-804 rear

I took these captures via an Elgato capture device. The captures from the VHS player are all via s-video and the captures from the combo player are via component. Unfortunately I could not capture 1080p via HDMI because of HDCP and I currently have no means of stripping this protection. The first images in the comparisons are from the VHS player and are marked by the white track numbers.

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-29-12My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-34-14

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-29-20My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-34-25

My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-29-23My Great Capture Screenshot 2016-03-18 11-31-05

It may be hard to notice via the images or some of you may actually be preferring the VHS images. depending on your TV’s ability to upconvert the quality can be pretty close when the combo player is placed up against a high end VHS deck but the quality gap increases noticeably in the combo players favor when using lower end VHS decks. Overall I am happy I picked this player up. It’s nice to be able to play all of ones VHS, CD audio, DVD and Blu-ray media on one player and on one HDTV. That said it’s still a niche market machine and likely not very common so If you see one at a good price and need a jack of all trades player or your still holding onto a massive VHS collection grab it.

dualtully

A few years back one of my blogs first articles was about dual CPU systems. One of the PC’s I talked about was my dual CPU Pentium III Tualatin machine. In this article I wanted to go a little further into that machine and talk about some of the upgrades I did to make this PC into a true early 2000’s beast.

The Pentium III Tualatin chip is the third revision and refinement of the Pentium III CPU and earned a reputation as a speedy CPU outclassing even the early Willimette Pentium 4’s and giving the Northwood revisions a run for their money. Released in 2001 and 2002 these CPUs mostly found their way to server systems since Intel is said to of actively discouraged their use in the home market so as to make way for the arguably inferior Pentium 4. Tualtain processors are not backwards compatible with most Pentium III motherboards without the use of an adapter or pin modification.

The greatest of the Tualatin Pentiums was the 1.4ghz chip with 512kb of L2 cache. These CPUs gained a reputation of their own for speed and reliability. My Tualatin PC is a fairly typical server class setup for the time. It features dual 1.4ghz Tualatin chips running on a Tyan S2507T motherboard. This motherboard lacks the bells and whistles of a motherboard meant for an enthusiast such as any ability to overclock via the BIOS but it has been highly reliably.

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My CPU’s also came with two very impressive and very overkill heatsinks installed. It’s a shame this motherboard does not support overclocking because they would be perfect for it.

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Originally I ran this machine with Windows 98SE, 512MB of RAM and a Matrox Max video card. This severely held the true potential of the Tualatin back and I began to wonder how far this CPU and motherboard could be pushed. First of all Windows 98SE does not support dual CPUs and thus the second CPU was entirely wasted. The board also supported much more RAM where Windows 9x becomes potentially unstable with over 512mb of RAM. The Matrox G400 MAX was a fine video card and offered great features and excellent 2d quality. Unfortunately by the time the Tualatin was released it was a little long in the tooth and certainly held the CPU back.

Without overclocking options I decided to focus on RAM, hard drive and most importantly graphics card upgrades.

My first order of business was upgrading the hard drive. The hard drive I had installed was a 80GB ATA 100 IDE hard drive. certainly adequate for the time but I wanted to see if I could do better and that meant SATA and a SSD or Solid State Drive. Since this motherboard was released a few years before SATA hit the PC world in a major way I had to resort to a PCI SATA controller card.

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The card above worked first time without a hitch for me. SSD’s are still a little pricey but luckily I only needed enough space for the operating system so I was able to find a very small 32GB SSD from Samsung online for the OS along with a larger 80GB standard SATA hard drive for my games and data. I decided against upgrading the DVD drives to SATA since I was mostly doing this upgrade for testing but if your upgrading your own machines a SATA upgrade for the optical drives is also advised.

Next I needed to upgrade the OS from Windows 98SE to XP. Unlike 98, XP supports SMP processing, or the use of two CPU’s. Though most software of the time did not support this feature the few titles that do would see a bump in performance as well as possibly the OS itself overall.

RAM was next on the list. I doubled my RAM to a full gigabyte of PC133 SDRAM.

Lastly was the graphics card and this is what proved most tricky. My motherboard supported a x4 universal AGP slot which limited my options to AGP for the fastest video card. I am not very familiar with Radeon cards so I tend to go the Nvidia route, especially since they also tend to be slightly more compatible overall. I was going for pure speed in for this build so Windows 9x and DOS game compatibility wasn’t an issue for me either.

My first choice was the Geforce 7 series since these were the last cards released by Nvidia for AGP. Being as they are among the last cards released for the bus the higher end models can be quite expensive and it took me awhile to find one at a reasonable price.

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The card I settled on was a Geforce 7800 GS and although there is a somewhat faster 7800 OC and a 7850 I felt the 7800 GS was already overkill relative to the CPU. Unfortunately I failed to realize all the AGP cards of the 7 series were not truly AGP cards and used PCI-e to AGP bridge chips. On later motherboards this isn’t much of an issue but on my older VIA chipset board this caused havoc. I did finally get the card to display and run programs by disabling AGP fast writes and AGP x4 in BIOS but the results were a garbled mess as you can see in the captured video below.

With all these issues my next course was to fallback to the previous generation of the Geforce 6 cards and I acquired a Geforce 6800 OC for also relatively cheap.

20160216_204830

Like the 7800 GS I had before it the 6800 OC was not the fastest of the 6800 family. That title belonged to the 6800 Ultra but again I felt it was already overpowered relative to the CPU. There are some Geforce 6 cards that do indeed use a PCI-e to APG bridge chips but thankfully the 6800 OC branch are native AGP. I still had initial instability issues with programs freezing up but by again disabling AGP fast writes and AGP x4 in BIOS I was able to get the card to perform perfectly.

So? was the upgrade worth it? resoundingly yes. The 1.4Ghz Pentium even at stock speeds is a very capable CPU. With upgrades I think a machine like this could of had its usable life extended for quite some time and been made to play a wide range of early and mid 2000’s games and software competently. I was able to play Unreal tournament 2004 with all the highest settings staying consistently above 30 FPS. I also benchmarked the Doom 3 time demo which was considered a very demanding game for the time and got a very playable 36.7 FPS on high settings and 1024 x 768 resolution and 31.7 FPS on ultra settings and 1280 x 1024 resolution.

Here are some graphics comparing my scores with PCMark 2002 and 3DMark 2001se between my old setup and the upgraded setup.

pcmark 2002 compair

I’m not sure how PCMark 2002 comes to its score conclusion but you can see the CPU scores are barely different. This makes sense if it’s not considering the power of the upgraded graphics card. There is on the other hand a noticeable score jump for memory and hard drive speed. 3DMark 2001se though shows a very dramatic increase in its scoring with a jump of 8124 points.

3d2001secompair2

Finally in 3DMark 2003 I received a benchmark score of 7690.

3D2003

Overall a very successful upgrade. Just keep in mind when upgrading older AGP capable motherboards try to stay clear of graphics cards that use PCI-e to AGP bridge chips and shoot for native AGP cards. I did find cards using the bridge chips did seem to run fine on later AGP motherboards like my late socket A motherboard featuring a x8 APG slot.

If you want to watch a video of the entire upgrade process please check out the video below.

1024px-Intel_i486_dx_50mhz_2007_03_27(Image from Wikipedia commons)

The Intel 50mhz DX chip, released in the summer 1991 was the first 486 CPU designed to run on the then blazing fast 50mhz front side system bus. For a very quick and simple explanation, front side bus or FSB is in a very simplified sense the speed at which the various components of the motherboard such as the chipset, RAM and so on communicate.  If the CPU is to be thought of as the brain of a computer then the FSB would be the nervous system. The higher the number the faster the machine is overall. Generally the CPU ran at the FSB of the motherboard, thus if you had a 486DX-33 CPU running at its stock speed your FSB would be 33mhz as well. the 486DX-50 promised blazing fast speeds in a time when most 486 motherboards were running a FSB of 33 or even 25mhz. Unfortunately the majority of motherboards at the time simply could not cope with a 40mhz FSB let alone 50mhz and PC systems running a 486DX-50 quickly gained a reputation for being a very unreliable setup. This reputation was compounded by the fact that the faster VLB or VESA slot cards especially had a hard time running on the 50mhz FSB since this slot was tied directly to the CPU.

With that said I wanted to to take a look at the nowadays uncommon 50mhz DX chip and see if I could put together a stable running PC. I also wanted to compare it to a few of its contemporaries, especially the 486DX2-50 which also ran at 50mhz but on a much more stable 25mhz FSB via “clock doubling”.

So due to that last sentence I think we need to take a very quick look at what “clock doubling” is to help us better understand this era of CPU’s. I’m going to quote the Red Hill guide here on how they explain clock doubling.

While it is relatively easy to make a CPU run faster, it’s much more difficult to do it for a whole motherboard…. you will remember that the IBM AT (286) decoupled the expansion bus, so that the video and I/O cards could run at a safe, conservative 8MHz even though the motherboard and CPU were zipping along at 16 or 33MHz. But even the best motherboards were limited to about 40MHz in those days, so to make a 50 or 66MHz CPU work reliably, the motherboard had to be decoupled as well. This is a mixed blessing. It allows a faster CPU, but looses performance because access to anything off-chip (RAM in particular) is limited to motherboard speed — in this case, 25MHz.

So CPU clock doubling is really motherboard clock halving. In itself it doesn’t make the CPU run any faster, it just lets the motherboard run more reliably with a fast CPU.”

So in a nutshell a 486DX-50 is running both the motherboard AND the CPU at 50mhz where for example a 486DX2-50 is running the motherboard at 25mhz and the CPU at 50mhz but how great of a difference does this really make? My reading suggests a DX-50 in a well setup system can rival the famous DX2-66 which is a 66mhz CPU running on a 33mhz FSB but that remains to be seen.

First off lets look at the setup I will be using.

50dx1

Specs are as follows

Motherboard – FIC 486-GVT U2?

The motherboard is a slight mystery to me. It identifies itself on the board as a 486-GVT or on some chips a 486-GVT U2 but from looking on the internet the jumper layouts of similar boards don’t seem to quite match up. There seems to be a few layouts for the 486-GVT 2 but they don’t exactly match this board though I was able to figure out were the jumpers that control FSB were and discover the settings via experimentation. This board is actually pretty nice featuring both 30 and 72 pin RAM slots and two VLB slots as well as a lithium coin battery for the CMOS so I would guess this is a later model motherboard for the era.

50dx2

50dx3

CPU’s – for testing I will be using all Intel CPU’s. a Intel 486DX-33, Intel 486DX-50, Intel 486DX2-50 and lastly the legendary Intel 486DX2-66.

50dx4(DX-50 on left with heatsink I added)

50dx5(bottom side of Intel 486DX-50)

RAM and cache – for RAM I’m not using anything special just 24MB total of 30 and 72 pin RAM, for L2 cache I’m using 15ns chips totaling 256KB

50dx6

Video and sound – for video I’m using a 1MB VLB Diamond Speedstar Pro card based off the Cirrus Logic CL-GD5428 chipset. Cirrus Logic was mostly known for their mid range graphics card offerings but near the end of the 486 era did put out a few of the fastest video chipsets. the GD5428 is no slouch and is a very competitive 2d DOS video card.

50dx7

 the sound card really doesn’t come into play here with the CPU benchmarks but for the sake of telling it is a sound blaster 16 Vibra model.

I/O – for I/0 ports and IDE control I’m using two separate cards. for serial and parallel ports I’m using a generic 8-bit SIS controller card and for my floppy and IDE controller I’m using a SIIG CI-1050. One problem I’m having with the SIIG card is my CD-ROM drive is not being detected which I haven’t taken the time to trouble shoot since I did not need it for these tests. It also does not work with other CPU’s installed so I’m chalking it up to an issue with the SIIG card. for  a hard drive I’m running an old 1.1GB Quantum fireball 1080.

50dx8

 The main thing one needs to watch out for on 486 machines if your using 40mhz or higher FSB is the number of VLB cards you have installed. Since they are tied to the CPU they can be very sensitive to the bus speeds. The general rule is the less VLB cards the more stable. Your usually safe running two cards on a 33mhz bus system but on a 40mhz bus system you will likely hit instability using two or more VLB cards. Its not uncommon to have one or another card refuse to work, corrupt data ect. On a 50mhz bus system even getting one VLB running reliably can be a challenge. The safest bet for the type of card to use in a VLB slot is a video card as this is the type of card the slot was originally intended for.

With this in mind I limited myself to strictly one VLB card to use for video. Many times PC builders had to cherry pick cards to find one that ran reliably in these high FSB system but luckily my Diamond Speedstar Pro has run perfectly at 50mhz.

Which leads me to the reliability of my machine. Although I don’t use it daily I did run it extensively prior to writing this article and played quite a few games on it without any issues. I don’t doubt the frustration I’ve read about with 50mhz FSB 486 boards but it appears I got very lucky with this build. I haven’t had any of the usual issues such as data corruption, crashes or refusal to post. The one problem I did encounter though is that I cannot confirm my L2 cache is working. Cachechk crashes when attempting to run it and Speedsys also detects noL1 or L2 cache to test. This seems to be a usual issue to very fast 486 systems. Faster cache RAM may help solve this issue.

I have compared benchmarks though with multiple other users of 50mhz 486 systems on Vogons and my numbers seem spot on with those systems with slight variations.

So, does the 50mhz Front Side Bus speed pay off in the end? Well, no, not really.

I ran several benches on the exact same machine with the only differences being the CPU and FSB and in the end the results were usually the same regardless of the test. The 66mhz DX2 running on a 33mhz FSB always smoked the 50mhz DX chip. Also the 50mhz DX and DX2 were usually somewhat close in performance despite the FSB of the DX2 being half that of the DX version. In theory programs only using the CPU’s internal cache should run about the same speed wise but those that are I/O intensive should see a noticeable speed bump and my VLB video card running with 0 wait states SHOULD be blazing fast under the 50mhz bus speed. keep in mind results seem to vary depending on the motherboard and chipset as well.

here’s two graphs to illustrate. First is 3DBench a popular 486 era benchmark test.

3DBench

3dbench results

Results are mostly as we would expect. the 33mhz DX lags well behind while the 66mhz DX2 beats the 50mhz DX by roughly 7 points while 4.8 points separate the 50mhz DX and DX2.

This is largely repeated in the Doom speed test as well.

Doom Speed Test

Doom st

In the Doom speed tests the DX and DX2 are even more evenly matched it appears with the 66mhz DX2 pulling well ahead again and the 33mhz DX falling well behind. I made a comparison video of both these tests running here as I think a video better represents the various CPU’s.

So in the end, yes you can get a 486 system with a 50mhz DX chip and a VLB card running reasonably stable with a little luck and the right parts. Is it worth it? Again, my answer is no, at least in my opinion. Sure having a 50mhz system has a kind of retro cool factor but despite what Red Hill seemed to say I don’t think it comes close to the 66mhz DX2 at least from what my testing and running both CPU’s has shown me. I have also looked at benchmark results as I said earlier from other users that compared systems and the 66mhz always seems to come out on top in these other tests as well. I’m sure there are instances where the 50mhz bus system may run faster but those instances seem few and far between. When looking at both 50mhz 486 chips and comparing to the DX2 version, sure, its a little faster but its really not that significant especially when put up against the hassle of finding the right parts to make a DX system run reliably.

Shortly before Christmas of 2015 there seemed to be a lot of buzz about the coming of “Steam boxes”. Overpriced pre built PC’s with a new Steam OS installed. Its seemed many people were treating them as their own sort of console which honestly sort of baffled me. This got me thinking and as much as I dislike it the world moves on. Physical game releases are looking to go the way of the Dodo bird and as much as I dislike supporting digital only downloads I would be doing myself a disfavor by not playing some of great indie games that have come out on steam as digital download only or with very limited physical release thanks to something like Indie box.

I decided I wanted to see if I could make my own budget “Steam Machine”. My taste in steams library though tends to be very specific. I like retro style games on the service and in my opinion these type of games are the ones that feel most correct on a TV with a game controller. These are games generally designed in the style and look of 2D 8 and 16 bit graphics. Games that do not take a whole lot of processing power or that require a fancy graphics card. This machine could also be used as a home theater PC for streaming. Some examples of the games I intended to play were Rouge Legacy, Breath of Death VII: the beginning, Retro City Rampage and Bro Force.

I wanted to achieve this as cheaply as possible with my first task being to secure a small case and motherboard. Thankfully I was able to acquire a case at a local swap meet for $3.

rsb1

This is the case I used for my project. I like it because it’s a smaller case designed for micro ATX motherboards but it’s not to small so I can use full height cards. This case can be used in desktop or tower configurations and supports two external 3 1/2 bays as well as an internal 3 1/2 bay and a 5 1/4 bay. I could live without the silver color and would have preferred black but for $3 I couldn’t turn it down. The floppy drive came with the case but realistically it won’t be seeing any use. The same can mostly be said for the DVD drive which I took from an old P4 Gateway PC. It’s hard to come across silver optical drives and at first I wasn’t sure about the curved bezel but it actually works to give the PC a interesting look. The drive is IDE even though the motherboard supports SATA but seeing as this machine is largely for streaming I’m not concerned.

rsb3

On the back you can see I did not have a back plate for the motherboard which doesn’t particularly bother me. The PSU is a 500 watt micro ATX supply I purchased off eBay for about $20. So far its worked without issue.

The motherboard was one I already had, A Intel DG31PR. This board though not a high powered gaming motherboard fit my needs perfectly. It had most everything I needed built in as well as built in VGA and audio for backup options and 4 onboard SATA connections. A PCI-e connector was my biggest priority due to the need for a semi modern video card.

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rsb5

rsb4

The specs are as followed.

OS – My first choice was to try Steam OS but I just wasn’t to impressed with it. I know its still in Beta but I felt I could do just as well with a more traditional OS choice so I went with Windows 10. Privacy concerns aside Win 10 is a pretty sleek OS in my opinion and looks very much at home as the OS for a media center. This machine is also more then powerful enough to run Win 10 so don’t feel like you need to only install it on PC’s with really high specs just because it is new.

CPU – I went with the fastest socket 775 CPU I had on hand which was a 2.5ghz dual core quad. Though no longer a powerhouse I felt the 4 cores was more then enough to run the style of games I intended to play as well as drive some older 2008 era PC games if I choose to play them on this machine. Remember I didn’t create this machine to play Witcher 3 or Fallout 4 on Ultra settings, this was for light streaming and “retro style Steam games”.

RAM – my motherboard only has two RAM sockets supporting a maximum of for GB or two  2gb sticks of DDR2. I always want more RAM in a modern machine but so far 4GB has worked just fine. I did have some slight issues with non low profile ram though because of the fact the sled for the hard drive is under the optical drive where the RAM goes.

Storage – For this machine I went with two hard drives. One for the OS ONLY and the other for data. The first drive I went with for the OS was a small solid state drive. I chose a SATA II 64GB drive that I was able to find on eBay for around $20. smaller SSD’s are getting very cheap and I found Windows 10 fit snugly on it with about 30GB to spare. The SSD fit nicely in the second external 3 1/2 bay under the floppy drive.

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I don’t foresee the size being an issue as I’m basically done adding anything to the drive and I doubt patches are going to take up the remaining 30GB. I really love how fast this drive gets the machine to desktop after powering on and really makes it feel like more of a console under the TV.

The second drive is a more traditional hard drive. It is a 250GB SATA drive I have in the bay under the optical drive.

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I know 250GB isn’t a lot these days but for small indie retro style games I think it serves is purpose fine. I will upgrade in the future if needed but since this drive was free for me I can hardly complain.

Video – The video card selection was the toughest part for me. My number 1 priority was a card that could output audio over the HDMI port. This ruled out older but powerful cards like the Nvidia 8000 and 9000 series that required a additional audio cable to run from the motherboard to the card. I also wanted a card that required no additional power and could run from the PCI-e buses power alone. My first choice was an Nvidia 630 GT. which  is actually a very capable entry level card but due to some issues with my possibly defective card such as constantly losing the video signal I had to use the next most powerful card I had on hand which was an entry level Radeon HD6450.

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This card is certainly no powerhouse but again our goal was not to playing Crysis 3 at 4K or anything like that. The card installed without an issue and does have a few benefits. first off it was free since I already had it, it can output audio through its HDMI port without any fiddling, it uses no extra power connectors and also is passivly cooled and does not require a fan so that cuts down on noise.

Thus far the card has run flawlessly and has run the games I mentioned earlier and more without issue. It also streams from YouTube and other sources just fine. In the future I would like to upgrade to a better card but for now this one seems to be serving its purpose.

Lastly I wanted to mention controllers. As far as game controllers go I initially used a older Gravis gamepad pro but many games failed to support it so I picked up a third party Rock Candy Xbox 360 controller from the local Walmart for $19.99.

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I have had no issues with this controller and all games thus far have recognized it, sometimes even listing it as a Rock Candy rather then a generic 360 controller. It’s a pretty solid controller for the price and I’d recommend it for light gaming.

Since putting this “Steam machine” together two weeks ago I have greatly enjoyed it. I’ve had no issues playing the games I want to play on my 50 inch LG 4K LED TV in the main room as far as seeing any slowdown or crashes. games seem to run fine at 720p and 1080p though some games do look a bit blurry in spots as if they were smeared lightly with Valvoline but nothing very serious. I’m unsure if this is the games themselves or the video card or results of upscaling to the TV.

Overall I’m very happy with this project and it cost me under $100 to put together. If you have lots of spare money to burn or don’t have a proper PC then I guess splurge on a retail Steam Machine but don’t be to intimidated by the specs of these machines. If your on a budget and your tastes aren’t for the most demanding graphical games on Steam you can certainly get by with something lesser powered.

rsbend

beta1My SL-HF600 Super Betamax player

Ah, the Beta player. Sony’s creation to battle the formidable VHS format in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. I’ve known about Betamax for a very long time but never owned or saw a player in stores growing up. As a matter of fact no one I knew owned a Betamax player, not even my uncle who was very into movies and A/V type electronics. Of course by the time I was old enough to care about things like video formats it was well into the very late 80’s and early 90’s. Long after Beta’s heyday had past. I only knew about it since it was often referred to in jokes of the day. For instance on the popular Married with Children I remember the Bundies only had a Beta player and thus when they went to rent a movie they were left with a rather lacking selection. This was funny at the time because as we all know Beta failed in its format war against VHS and was relegated to obscurity in the consumer sector. Owning a Beta player was seen as “backing the wrong horse” much like if you went out and bought an expensive HD DVD player not to long ago.

Now I say it failed in the commercial market and not just failed because  not to many people know Beta is actually still produced, although Sony announced it will be stopping production in 2016. This is because even though VHS dominated the home market in the 80’s and 90’s Beta was widely used in the commercial sector and in some places may still be used. This would be broadcast studios, new studios, professional video editing businesses and such places.

I won’t go into details since specs can be easily looked up via Wikipedia but Betamax was known to deliver a better image quality then VHS and offer slightly higher resolution. This partially the reason it was embraced by professionals. Like VHS and SVHS, Beta was upgraded over time and in 1985 super betamax was introduced and eventually in 1988 Extended Definition Betamax which supposedly had a better resolution then even Laserdisc, reaching DVD like quality. Beta failed in the end despite arguably better image quality. It’s often cited that the price of player/recorders as well as a lesser recording length compared to VHS were the chief causes.

The player I have above is a Sony model SL-HF600 from 1985. This was a mid-high end player and retailed for $700-$1000. It featured the then new Super Betamax standard as well as various options such as frame by frame, slow motion and hi-fi audio. I picked this player up at Goodwill for a few bucks and I’m rather happy with it. It fired right up and played a tape without any issues.

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Despite being slightly higher end the rear of the player isn’t to fancy and simply has composite video in/out as well as RCA stereo. There is also a switch for the hi-fi audio option.

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Some months later at a swap meet I did come across a box of Beta tapes and a cleaning kit.

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The tape I ended up buying for less then a dollar was a demo tape for Super Betamax. I assume this tape would be used for demonstration reasons in a storefront and looped to show off the new Super Betamax standard.

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As you can see above, Beta tapes were quite similar to VHS but were overall smaller then their VHS counterpart. Likely another reason professionals like news cameramen may of favored them.

So should you buy a Beta player? well….no. If your really really into outdated video formats and can find one for a few bucks working then I guess so but honestly their use is pretty limited. The style is neat and they can offer better image quality over VHS but its hard to endorse Beta when Laserdisc is such a better option then Beta. LD’s are arguably “cooler” and many more movies and special feature editions of movies were leased on LD. Some films that still haven’t been brought to DVD or Blu ray have thier best versin on LD. yes Extended Definition Betamax introduced in 1988 did offer virtual DVD quality images but very few players with this capability were ever produced as it was marketed to professionals. I don’t even think from my research any commercial films were produced in ED Beta format. I haven’t been able to even find a single film that was only released in Beta format or only VHS/Beta but not any other format such as LD or DVD to justify owning a player. So in the end they are neat but hardly practical in usefulness terms to own, even for the retro enthusiast.

If you think I’m wrong please let me know in the comments. I always love hearing compelling reasons to make use of old tech.

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